Why Cybersecurity and Politics Just Don’t Mix Well

With the number of high-profile security breaches growing rapidly, more and more large corporations, media outlets and even government organizations are falling victim to hacking attacks. These attacks are almost always widely publicized, adding insult to already substantial injury for the victims. It’s no surprise that the recent news and developments in the field of cybersecurity are now closely followed and discussed not just by IT experts, but by the general public around the world.

Inevitably, just like any other sensational topic, cybersecurity has attracted politicians. And whenever politics and technology are brought together, the resulting mix of macabre and comedy is so potent that it will make every security expert cringe. Let’s just have a look at the few of the most recent examples.

After the notorious hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment last November, which was supposedly carried out by a group of hackers demanding not to release a comedy movie about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-Un, United States intelligence agencies were quick to allege that the attack was sponsored by North Korea. For some time, it was strongly debated whether a cyber-attack constitutes an act of war and whether the US should retaliate with real weapons.

Now, every information security expert knows that attributing hacking attacks is a long and painstaking process. In fact, the only known case of a cyber-attack more or less reliably attributed to a state agency until now is Stuxnet, which after several years of research has been found out to be a product of US and Israeli intelligence teams. In case of the Sony hack, many security researchers around the world have pointed out that it was most probably an insider job having no relation to North Korea at all. Fortunately, cool heads in the US military have prevailed, but the thought that next time such an attack can be quickly attributed to a nation without nuclear weapons is still quite chilling…

Another repercussion of the Sony hack has been the ongoing debate about the latest cybersecurity ‘solutions’ the US and UK governments have come up with this January. Among other crazy ideas, these proposals include introducing mandatory backdoors into every security tool and banning certain types of encryption completely. Needless to say, all this is served under the pretext of fighting terrorism and organized crime, but is in fact aimed at further expanding government capabilities of spying on their own citizens.

Unfortunately, just like any other technology plan devised by politicians, it won’t just not work, but will have disastrous consequences for the whole society, including ruining people’s privacy, making every company’s IT infrastructure more vulnerable to hacking attacks (exploiting the same government-mandated backdoors), blocking significant part of academic research, not to mention completely destroying businesses like security software vendors or cloud service providers. Sadly, even in Germany, the country where privacy is considered an almost sacred right, the government is engaged in similar activities as well.

Speaking about Germany, the latest, somewhat more lighthearted example of politicians’ inability to cope with cybersecurity comes from the Bundestag, the German federal parliament. After another crippling cyber-attack on its network in May, which allowed hackers to steal large amount of data and led to a partial shutdown of the network, the head of Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security has come up with a great idea. Citing concerns for mysterious Russian hackers still lurking in the network, it has been announced that the existing infrastructure including over 20,000 computers has to be completely replaced. Leaving aside the obvious question – are the same people that designed the old network really able to come up with a more secure one this time? – one still cannot but wonder whether millions needed for such an upgrade could be better spent somewhere else. In fact, my first thought after reading the news was about President Erdogan’s new palace in Turkey. Apparently, he just had to move to a new 1,150-room presidential palace simply because the old one was infested by cockroaches. It was very heartwarming to hear the same kind of reasoning from a German politician.

Still, any security expert cannot but continue asking more specific questions. Was there an adequate incident and breach response strategy in place? Has there been a training program for user security awareness? Were the most modern security tools deployed in the network? Was privileged account management fine-grained enough to prevent far-reaching exploitation of hijacked administrator credentials? And, last but not the least: does the agency have budget for hiring security experts with adequate qualifications for running such a critical environment?

Unfortunately, very few details about the breach are currently known, but judging by the outcome of the attack, the answer for most of these questions would be “no”. German government agencies are also known for being quite frugal with regards to IT salaries, so the best experts are inevitably going elsewhere.

Another question that I cannot but think about is what if the hackers have utilized one of the zero-day vulnerability exploits that the German intelligence agency BND is known to have purchased for their own covert operations? That would be a perfect example of “karmic justice”.

Speaking of concrete advice, KuppingerCole provides a lot of relevant research documents. You should probably start with the recently published free Leadership Brief: 10 Security Mistakes That Every CISO Must Avoid and then dive deeper into specific topics like IAM & Privilege Management in the research area of our website. Our live webinars, as well as recordings from past events can also provide a good introduction into relevant security topics. If you are looking for further support, do not hesitate to talk to us directly!



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